Cheap Shots

I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I would have voted for Mike Dukakis for President back in 1988. Well, maybe if someone gave me a pre-frontal lobotomy perfomed with dull swiss army knife and a dirty spoon. Maybe. I never liked him, and he stood against pretty much everything I stood for politically. But I always thought he got a raw deal one time.

When he was running for President, he faces an opponent with military experience and a great deal of foreign policy background- George H.W. Bush. Bush had been a Naval Aviator in WWII and had served in  a wide variety of positions including Director of Central Intelligence and of course, two terms as Vice President under Ronald Reagan. Dukakis was the Governor of Massachusetts, but had little defense or foreign policy background(Dukakis did serve in the Army from 1955-57). In order to bolster his defense “bona fides” he took part in a photo op riding in an Army M-1 Abrams Tank. The result was this infamous photo.

Dukakis was mercilessly mocked for the photo. The Bush campaign ran ads of the photo to make the point that Dukakis was not fit to be Commander-in-Chief. Many people credit this for shifting the tide in the election from favoring him to favoring Bush (I think Willie Horton might have had more to do with it).  It bacame the prime example of a PR stunt backfiring.

Here’s why I think he got a raw deal. He looked goofy. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Everyone in a tank helmet looks goofy. I do. Oh, Lord, don’t I know I look goofy. The thing is, the helmet wasn’t designed as a fashion accessory, it was made to keep you from cracking your skull open when the tank bounces around.

We’ve seen several cases where politicians since then have been mocked for wearing helmet, to include John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Obama with the bike helmet (I’ll admit, I love Slu’s P-Shops of the bike helmet). George W. Bush has been mocked for being photographed in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier (if he hadn’t taken the helmet off before photos, he would have been screwed).

I’m glad Dukakis lost the election, I just feel bad that he had to take that cheap shot.

Retro Apache Pr0n…

When I put up my post on the Apache development, I asked BillT from Castle Argghhh! to take a look and let me know if I’d made any colossal blunders. As I fired off the email, I knew in my bones he was going to come back with a word about the Apache’s daddy, the venerable AH-1 Cobra. How did I know this? Bill is a retired Army Aviator (in fact, I believe he’s a Master Aviator), with combat time in Vietnam and long experience in attack and scout aviation. My request was like asking the owner of a ’64 Mustang to give me his thoughts on the new Dodge Magnum. Sure, he’ll help, but you know he’s gonna want to talk a little Mustang.

Almost from the first helicopter, people had the bright idea to arm them. Everyone in the Army knows to seek the high ground, and how much higher can you get than in a helicopter? But the concept was easier than the implementation. Early helicopters had little power, and were only able to lift relatively small loads. Think back to the opening shots of M*A*S*H. Not a lot of room there for lifting heavy stuff. Early helicopters were powered by piston engines. You could use a bigger engine to get more power, but the weight of the engine increased faster than the improvement in power. It wasn’t until the invention of the gas turbine that lightweight, powerful helicopters became a reality.

A gas turbine is a jet engine that transfers its power to a drive shaft, instead of pushing air out the back. The first practical gas turbine powered helicopter was the UH-1B Iroquois, far better known as the Huey. Early in the Vietnam war, Huey’s began to be used to ferry troops to the battle, saving time that would otherwise be spent walking in the woods. Unfortunately, the VC learned that they could predict where the Huey’s would land, and soon began laying ambushes for them. The Huey’s were tough, capable birds, but they can only take so much damage. What was needed was an escort to keep the VC’s heads down while the Huey’s landed and offloaded their troops. The Army quickly developed an armed version of the Huey, equipping it with machine guns and 2.75” rockets, just the thing to discourage the VC from shooting at the transports.

While the new gunship escorts were a great improvement over nothing, they still weren’t perfect. The extra weight of the guns, rockets and ammunition actually left the escorts slower than the transports.

The Army and Bell Helicopter took the parts of the helicopter that they liked, such as the rotor, transmission and basic engine, and developed a specialized gunship. By using a more powerful version of the basic engine (and not many aviators will ever complain about having more power) and using the smallest possible body, they were able to introduce a chopper that was both faster than the transports and more heavily armed than previous gunships. The AH-1G would be the Army’s primary gunship in the Vietnam war. Over 1,000 were produced.

Armed with two 6-barreled 7.62mm Mini-guns and 2.75” rocket pods, the AH-1G Cobra had plenty of firepower to suppress the VC when transports were landing or taking off at an LZ. In addition, they were used to provide close support for troops on the ground. In fact, some units were used primarily for this and were designated Ariel Rocket Artillery Battalions. Many a grunt blessed the familiar “Whop-whop-whop” sound of a Cobra overhead.

After the Vietnam War, the Army turned its attention back to Western Europe. The Army was in bad shape and facing a truly massive Soviet army. With budgets tight, forces demoralized and equipment obsolete, how would the Army be able to defeat the Soviets and prevent them from conquering Western Europe. The Army had a large supply of Cobras on hand, but rockets and Mini-guns were next to useless against tanks and armored personnel carriers. The answer lay with the TOW missile. TOW stands for Tube Launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile. With a range of 3000 meters and a warhead capable of destroying any tank, the 70 pound missile gave the Cobra the firepower it needed to be useful on the battlefields of Europe. A new 20mm three barreled cannon was also added to deal with targets like trucks.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1_Tg1p5Xw0]

With this new, powerful anti-tank weapon, Army aviators began thinking beyond the front lines. By using the mobility of helicopters, they could search out and attack Soviet formations behind the front lines, before they were attacking our troops. In conjunction with the evolution of what would become AirLand Battle doctrine, the concept of “Deep Strike” came to be accepted. No longer would aviators be thought of as glorified truck drivers or simply flying artillery, but as Cavalry in the tradition of JEB Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

UPDATE:

BillT was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the subject (see comments) and better yet, send pictures!

Flying Tanks (yes, really)(well, sorta)

No, we aren’t going to drop a 70-ton M-1A1 tank using parachutes. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had airborne tanks. I wouldn’t call any of them huge successes, but our main topic today, the M551 Sheridan wasn’t a complete flop, either.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50cpPAVoxJQ]

Airborne forces got their start in WWII. We’ve all seen the movies of paratroopers jumping into Normandy. One problem they had was a shortage of ways to defeat German armor and take out targets like bunkers and pillboxes. The bazooka went a ways toward this, but a tank would help a lot. The US and the British developed a very light tank called the M22 Locust that could be landed by glider or transported by plane. Arriving in service too late to see combat in WWII, it was also badly undergunned.

After WWII, the Army still tried to come up with lightweight tank for the airborne forces, but had little success. To have any success defeating armor meant a bigger gun. A bigger gun meant a heavier vehicle, and heavier vehicles couldn’t be airdropped. That was pretty much the state of affairs until missile technology entered the picture.

Instead of using a solid shot to penetrate enemy armor, the plan was to use High Explosive Anti Tank (HEAT) rounds. These use a warhead that focuses the explosion to “burn through” enemy armor. The velocity of the round doesn’t matter to the penetration. The effectiveness of a HEAT round is directly related to the diamater of the warhead. The larger the better. But that takes us back to the problem of weight. The solution was to sacrifice muzzle velocity and accept a slow flying round, since the velocity on impact didn’t matter. This made the gun effective at short ranges. Unfortunately, the problem of long range defense against tanks was still there. The Army solved this by using the same gun as a launcher for a guided missle. After a protracted (and not terribly successful) development, the gun and missile combination was finalized. The gun was a 152mm bore (about 6″) that could fire HEAT rounds for short ranges, and the MGM-51 Shillelagh guided missile.

The gun/missile combination was mated to a lightweight, aluminum hull (or chassis, if you will) that was capable of both being airdropped from a C-130 and of swimming. Production started in 1966 and vehicles soon began to equip the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, and other units soon thereafter.

While the system worked to some extent, most of the users weren’t very happy with it. The aluminum armor was easily penetrated, and vulnerable to mines. The Sheridan was also prone to breakdowns. By the mid-70s, most Cavalry units had phased it out. The 82nd Airborne Division, however, had nothing to replace it and so held on to theirs until 1996. The 82nd actually airdropped eight of them during the invasion of Panama, and deployed 51 of them to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

By the late 1970s, the Army had several hundred relatively new, but obsolete Sheridans on its hands. It had also just opened the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, near Barstow, CA, and needed lots of armor to simulate a Soviet regiment attacking across Western Europe. Many Sheridans were modified with sheet metal and fiberglass to give them a distinctive, somewhat Soviet look to play this part. They served very honorably in this role until 2003 when they were replaced by highly modified M-113s.

Update:

Because there were few enemy tanks in Vietnam, and the recoil of HEAT rounds tended to damage electronics on board, Sheridans deployed to Vietnam had their missile guidance packages removed. In addition to the HEAT round, they carried a cannister anti personnel round. You’ve seen a shotgun shell before. Now imagine one six inches across and about 2 1/2 feet long. This was a fearsome weapon when the VC or NVA attacked Sheridan units.

Tank Battles

I wrote earlier about bringing enough gun to the fight, but not too much. A prime example of this was the M-1 Abrams tank.

When this tank debuted, people were aghast at the cost. What they didn’t realize was it was acutally the result of an extreme cost cutting program. For 20 years, the Army had been cooperating with Germany to develop a sucessor to the M-60 series of tanks, but each iteration had become too complex and too costly. The Army finally decided that they would develop a tank using technology shared with the Germans rather than develop a tank to be used by both countries.

One of the sticking points was the main gun. The standard US tank gun was the 105mm M68. The Army thought this was sufficient to defeat current and projected Soviet armor (and were pretty much right).

The Germans had developed the excellent 120mm smoothbore, and wanted both countries tanks to use it. Our Army resisted for a couple of reasons. The biggest was cost. The new gun would have to be license produced here, with associated setup costs. Even more expensive would be providing stocks of ammunition for the gun. The Army had a huge stockpile of 105mm ammunition already. Buying an entirely new stockpile in the tight budgets of the 1970s wasn’t an attractive option.

In the end, the 105mm won-sort of. The decision was to place the M-1 into production with the 105mm, but make provision to add the 120mm in the future. As it turned out, for various reasons, this was a lot harder than anyone expected. Still, partly as a sop to our German allies, and partly over concern about the ability of the 105mm to defeat future Soviet armor, the 120mm was adopted for the M1A1 that entered service in 1988.

One disadvantage of the 120mm was a reduced ammo load. An M-1 with the 105mm carries 55 main gun rounds. An M-1A1 carries 40. As it turns out, however, few tanks will shoot their entire basic load in a single battle. In fact, not a single tank in Desert Storm fired its entire basic load.

Tankers, ever wonder why the coax on your tank has that massive 4000 round load? Because that’s where the designers originally wanted to put the 25mm M242. The only reason it didn’t make it into the final design was cost. Leaving the 25mm out saved about $100,000 just for the gun, and made the fire-control system simpler, and hence cheaper.